The Fast fashion industry: An ethical overview
Introduction + History
Ever since humans first rose into existence, they have created forms of clothing to cover themselves. Wherever it originated, for the purpose of practicality, clothing quickly became a marker of identity for the wearer. Today, fashion can be used to make a statement, to show off egregious amounts of capital, or simply for comfort and utility, though this itself suggests something about an individual.
Clothing has multiple purposes, and while people look at fashion for what it can convey, they often overlook how these clothes are produced. Nearly all clothing manufactured today is made in sweatshops at the expense of child labor and underpaid workers. In order to understand how society has arrived at the point where society ubiquitously utilizes products that profit off the suffering of others, one needs to take a more comprehensive look at the history of clothing.
In the early 1900s, even though clothing factories and technological innovations that contributed to the ease of clothing production were popping up everywhere, most clothes were still made at home. It was not until the early 1940s, when World War II took over all aspects of everyday life, that fabric restrictions and increasing demand for functional styles prompted the middle class to purchase mass-produced clothing. Starting in the 1950s, “a high disposable income along with a booming economy” encouraged mass market fashion (Tariq). Simultaneously, the fashion industry was being greatly impacted by movie stars, and soon, mass-produced clothing began mimicking fashionable pieces worn by celebrities. Designers such as Ralph Lauren, Giorgio Armani, and Yves Sait Laurent constructed pieces that were seen on the runway and in shows that would appear in stores weeks to months later. The industry operated by a seasonal timeline, and designers would release new clothing lines according to the season.
The late 1900s and early 2000s saw fashion shows popularized. These shows favored functional, everyday styles over flashier and extravagant pieces. At this time, local businesses and designers also began influencing international markets. This was negatively referred to by some as cultural appropriation, “the use of objects or elements in a non-dominant culture in a way that doesn't respect their original meaning, give credit to their sources, or reinforces stereotypes or contributes to oppression” (Cuncic). For individuals who make the claim that assimilating elements of minority dress into one’s wardrobe is cultural appropriation, it is not the implementing of accessories and garments that is problematic, but rather, when the dominant, privileged, groups (white people in America) uses that garment in a manner that the culture feels offensive or if the dominant group is ignorant of the struggles of the culture and of the meaning associated with the garment. Comfort, economical means, and profit also were woven into the market at this time; brands that already had a major influence collaborated with designers and celebrities to expand their customers base, and soon, fast fashion became commonplace.
The purchasing of cheap clothing became normalized between the 1960s and the 1980s, with young adults encouraged by advertisements to buy new styles every season, a contrast with the way that older generations would invest in articles of clothing that would last for years. Brands rose to meet the demand for inexpensive clothing, “leading to massive textile mills opening across the developing world, which allowed the US and European companies to save millions of dollars by outsourcing their labor” (Idacavage). Modern-day big brands such as Zara, H&M, and Primark all began as small shops in Europe in the 1950s, and by providing accessible and affordable clothing, they made their way into the American market in the late twentieth century and saw exponential growth into the 2000s. Brands’ abilities to create massive amounts of merchandise while keeping their stores packed increased the demand for their clothing. Low prices kept consumers coming back, despite the child labor and sweatshop conditions that were necessary to keep the prices so low.
The term “fast fashion” refers to the speed at which clothes move from the runway to stores. The desire to show off affordable fashion right off the runway has skyrocketed in the past couple of decades, increasing the demand for fast fashion. Due to accessibility and affordability, brands such as Zara, H&M, Fashion Nova, and Forever 21 remain popular with consumers. Even though many brands have distanced themselves from the term “fast fashion,” the desire for instantaneous, fashionable clothing has exponentially increased the number of clothing factories in developing countries. Manufacturers outsource production to keep their costs low, while producing clothes at a rate never seen before, which supports the use of cheap labor because clothes must be made at an astronomical rate. In order to assemble clothes at this rate, more workers are employed for even lower costs to maximize profit.
Even distinguished women, such as Kate Middleton and Michelle Obama, have deviated from the typical luxury fashion they would normally wear, opting at times to don fast fashion brands. Such a deviation is used to illustrate the argument that fast fashion companies have democratized fashion, as individuals from varying economic and social backgrounds are now able to access the same styles, largely due to mass production. Traditionally, clothing options were determined by social class, gender, and culture, but these barriers have largely been overcome. For example, in the 1800s, only the wealthy could afford to be dressed in the most extravagant and rich styles set by the ruling family at the time. Whereas, the working class would wear similar clothing every day, based on an outfit’s practicality and permanence. The fashion one wore was a big hint at one’s social class and economic status, a concept that has largely been eradicated as prominent figures and “everyday people” wear similar clothing and shop from similar stores. As a result of the democratization of fashion, the stigma of repeating outfits, flashy advertising, and the accessibility of it all, fast fashion brands have been able to appeal to nearly every demographic. Celebrities, influencers, and models have flaunted dresses and tops from online stores like Shein and Romwe, notorious for their low prices and exploitation of child labor in low-income countries. Cardi B, an American rapper and internet celebrity, sponsors fast-fashion company Fashion Nova, both known for their jeans and infamous for the 2016 investigation where it was found that they owed “$3.8 million in back wages to hundreds of workers'' (Kitroeff). Even though Cardi B’s net worth is over $20 million, and she can afford to invest in garments that are ethically produced, she instead supports brands that engage in immoral practices. She is not the only celebrity guilty of this; very few celebrities have spoken up against the controversial ethics of fast fashion, as many profit from the industry’s lack of morals. Anyone who wears these clothes, regardless of his or her wealth or social standing, is also culpable, doing so endorses a brand that profits from child labor and unpaid workers.
Fashion Nova is one of the many companies that has exploited the sweatshop system for profit. Many garment workers in fast fashion industries often work overtime and are underpaid. The lack of pay is not the only concerning factor present; the inhumane conditions employees are subject to do not meet national standards set for workplaces. While the conditions in American sweatshops are abhorrent and violate multiple labor laws, the main problem lies in low and middle-income countries, where most American companies outsource their labor to keep production courses low. Clothing prices may be decreasing for consumers, but wages are decreasing for workers, as well.
Human Rights Violations
Those who work in low-income countries in clothing factories are no stranger to human rights violations, sexual harassment, child labor, deadly fires, low wages, and inhumane working conditions. The need for human rights standards in the United States garment industry became apparent in 1911 after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in NYC, a disaster that claimed the lives of nearly 150 employees due to the lack of proper working conditions. However, it was not until recently, when the Rana Plaza factory collapsed in 2013, killing 1,134 Bangladeshi workers, that the world had to reckon with a global need for human rights standards in the fashion industry. While companies have taken the initiative to improve conditions for workers, the progress has been frustratingly slow due to the increasing demand for cheaper clothing and more purchasing options. Because most companies are focused on making a higher profit through any means possible, they choose to exploit workers in foreign countries where the crackdown on human rights violations is few and far between. Many of these workers are not paid or are paid unlivable wages, are forced to work in deplorable conditions, and are sometimes coerced into this type of labor.
This exploitation can appear in “a variety of forms from harvesting the cotton for a t-shirt, spinning the fiber to yarn sewing the garment, and modeling the final product” (Clay). The absence of transparency in long supply chains allow these sweatshop conditions to flourish, as “much of the labor and backbone of a clothing collection is contracted out to various players and tracing all the steps from raw material to final product proves quite difficult” (Clay). As matter of fact, “India has witnessed 300,000 farmer-suicides over the past two decades …. They characterize this distressing phenomenon as ‘genocide’, averring that such suicides were unheard of prior to the commodification [of cotton]” (Thomas et Tavernier). These farmers in the garment industry produce cotton, one of the very beginning steps in the supply chain. The commodification of the cottonseed, used to make cotton clothing, has placed so much strain on workers that some are driven to suicide.
Compared with cotton fields, those in factories do not fare much better, as “some factories have lacked proper safety equipment for workers or exposed them to dangerous chemicals. Others have had unsafe electrical wiring, which increases the risk of a fire― a danger often compounded by inadequate alarm systems and escape routes” (Worker Rights Consortium). Many unmonitored production facilities do not care about treating their workers as people; they are only pawns in the economy.
In an effort to improve working conditions, the Human Rights Watch has advocated for increased visibility to allow for the public to be better informed about which factories produce clothes for which brands: “In 2016, Humans Right Watch joined eight international labor rights groups and global unions advocating for a basic level of transparency in the garment industry” (Kashyap). Together, the “Transparency Pledge,” a coalition of labor rights groups and companies who promise to disclose information, such as the names and addresses of supplier factories, was created. This information allows the industry to keep track of unauthorized subcontracting and of sites that hire employees, but then deny them basic rights, such as maternity and sick leave. Companies that disclose their production sites and participate in the Transparency Pledge allow for the monitoring of their production facilities, which has a greater chance of ensuring that employees are given humane working conditions. Leading brands such as Adidas, Gap Inc., Levi’s, and Primark have given this information, but a large percentage of the industry has not, claiming that this will give an edge to their competitors. Forever 21, Urban Outfitters, Walmart, and Inditex, which owns Zara, are among the companies that refuse to reveal which factories make their clothes. In contrast, companies that have given this information have reported no financial harm. It is suspected that many companies who choose not to disclose the names and addresses of their supplier factories use illegally subcontracted factories to produce their apparel.
Even though some brands have taken the initiative to ethically produce clothing, it is near impossible to sell an article of clothing that has not sourced forced labor somewhere in the line. Fast fashion and streetwear brands knowingly exploit illegal labor, and while small businesses, sustainable fashion, and luxury fashion may pay their workers fairly, claiming that they only use ethical practices, it is highly likely that somewhere along the supply chain, underpaid and/or child labor was used. There is no way out of the inescapable cycle unless production is carefully monitored from the sourcing of cotton and other fabrics to its way in-stores. Regardless, if they can, people should attempt to purchase from brands that encourage transparency.
In addition to multiple human rights violations that have stemmed as a result of it, the growth of the fashion industry has negatively impacted the environment. The very process of manufacturing clothing is detrimental to the environment. For instance, “Textile dyeing results in ... hazards as untreated wastewater from dyes are often discharged into local water systems, releasing heavy metals and other toxicants that can adversely impact the health of animals in addition to nearby residents” (Bick et al). Plants also are afflicted by textile processes, as their habitats can be destroyed. The environment sees its waterways poisoned by toxins, because the garment industry cannot take care to ensure proper removal of hazardous materials.
The issue of excess clothing has also become a major issue, as “clothing not sold in markets becomes solid waste, clogging rivers, green ways, and parks, and creating the potential for additional environmental health hazards in [Low and Middle Income Countries] lacking robust municipal waste systems.” Efficient waste systems are not always present in low and middle income countries, which consequently, are the most affected; these countries are also the ones that produce the most clothing, since 90% of the world’s clothing is made outside of America. Countries that can afford to produce this clothing without such a detrimental impact on the environment do not, because the law would require them to actually provide living conditions and wages for their workers. Regardless, the fast fashion industry still negatively impacts American’s environment as “approximately 85% of the clothing Americans consume, nearly 3.8 billion pounds annually, is sent to landfills as solid waste, amounting to nearly 80 pounds per American per year.” All the clothing that is not bought or sold second-hand, all of the clothing that Americans discard to make room for newer, more up-to-date fashions is shipped out straight to landfills, a practice that is not only common in America but most other countries as well. These landfills then yield greenhouse gases, contributing greatly to global warming, and the toxic substances present in clothing end up leaking into waterways and the land, which also poses a huge environmental issue.
Thrifting, the act of shopping at a thrift store, flea market, garage sale, or charitable organization, provides clothing with a second life and has a positive environmental impact. Because clothes have the chance to be reused, their path to the landfill is delayed. This reusing also leads to the decreased consumption of fast fashion clothing, which, if thrifting occurs on a large enough scale, will decrease the production of fast fashion clothing.
Despite the benefits of secondhand shopping, the increase in thrifters, encouraged by the positive environmental impact, has led to the gentrification of thrift stores. Gentrification is when poor areas experience an influx of middle-class and wealthy people that increases costs, (usually property values), and subsequently displaces the poor (Merriam-Webster). Originally, thrift stores gave low-income families access affordable clothing, but rising popularity has raised the price on garments.
Since many thrift stores are located near their targeted demographic, low-income populations, it remains to be seen if the positive environmental impact outweighs the many lives negatively affected by rising clothing prices. The gentrification of neighborhoods where thrift stores like Goodwill and Salvation Army are often housed has led, in some cases, to a transformation of stores to more upscale models that traffic in high end clothing. In other cases, gentrification has caused stores in these neighborhoods to close, when paying the increased cost of rent is no longer tenable. In the former case, the original purpose of a thrift store― to clothe the poor― is abandoned for a new purpose, profit. While thrifting benefits the environment much more than purchasing retail clothing, it can harm poor people whose only option for buying clothes is a low cost thrift store. This begs the question: how can one purchase clothing while simultaneously keeping an eye out for the environment, low-income communities, and workers in the supply chain?
Sustainable Fashion and Ethical Fashion
Ethical fashion and sustainable fashion, though often mistaken for each other, prioritize rectifying different issues in clothing production. Sustainable fashion “focuses on how the life cycle of items can affect the environment around us” (Torito). Attention revolves around lessening energy and water consumption, decreasing fast fashion’s carbon footprint, and using alternate, environmentally-friendly fabrics that are not cotton-based to create clothing. Energy consumption is a huge issue because of the immensity of the production stage in the fashion industry; it takes energy to harvest, defoliate, separate, and transfer cotton, to ship the cotton to textile facilities, to adapt them into cotton strands, to spin them to create yarn, to dye the yarn, to weave it into specific articles of clothing, and then to transport the clothes to stores. Factories use machines for a large portion of this work, and the electricity needed to keep the machines running mostly comes from non-renewable sources. Aside from the massive amount of energy needed to keep the whole process moving, harvesting cotton leads to the use of pesticides and chemicals which cause their own environmental problems. Additionally, heightened water consumption and the toxifying of water also cause environmental complications. The overseas production of clothing has ultimately resulted in a rising carbon footprint; in order to attempt to solve these problems, sustainable fashion focuses on using locally made and biodegradable clothing to avoid an adverse impact on the environment.
On the other hand, ethical fashion “bases its movement on the welfare of the laborers and workers involved in the process” (Torito). An estimated 170 million children are forced into labor, with an additional 40 million adults working under inhumane conditions. Ethical fashion was formulated to fight against unethical working conditions at every stage of clothing manufacturing. As such, ethical fashion supports living wages and the prevention of cruel and inhumane working conditions. Subsequently, buying from an ethical brand supports practices that benefit nearly everyone in the supply chain. Ideally, one should aim to purchase from companies that focus on both sustainable and ethical fashion, such as Everlane, Pact, Tentree, Patagonia, Reformation, and Eileen Fisher. However, it is also important to keep in mind that these clothes are not accessible to everyone, and one should not shame individuals who do not buy sustainable or ethical clothing when that person may not be in the position of privilege to do so.
In the spectrum from secondhand clothing to luxury fashion, retail clothing brands such as Nordstrom, Victoria’s Secret, Urban Outfitters, GAP, Under Armour fall somewhere in the middle. These clothes are generally considered reasonably priced and are normally sold first-hand. Because of their mid-tier pricing, there is the misconception that they use ethical and sustainable practices. However, nearly every clothing store employs child labor or sweatshop labor somewhere in the production chain, and the impact of these brands on the environment is too often labeled as “very poor.” All the brands listed above have poor working conditions and an even poorer impact on the environment. Even Nordstrom, the second most popular retail brand in America, claims to have ethical and sustainable practices, as they have committed to many sustainable and fair labor alliances. Nonetheless, there is no evidence that they pay their workers reasonable wages or keep an eye on the suppliers in the supply chain. Since their materials come from countries with high/extreme risks of labor abuse, it is highly likely that their fair practices claims are simply a facade.
Ever since Nike and dozens of other athletic apparel companies have come under fire for using sweatshops and unsatisfactory environmental production practices, many consumers have been on the hunt for athletic clothing produced ethically and sustainably. Unfortunately, almost no popular athletic apparel companies, no matter the price tag, fit these categories. Under Armour, an American sports equipment company, has signed a Supplier Code that forbids the use of forced/child labor, slavery, and human trafficking, similar to many athletic and retail companies. Nonetheless, “it received a 21-30% in the Fashion Transparency Index,” as it does not provide much information about suppliers, labor practices, gender equality, or paid wages (Good On You). Taking a deeper look, one can see that Under Armour does not reduce textile waste, lessen hazardous chemicals in production, attempt to be more water-friendly, or use many eco-friendly materials. Even though they signed the Supplier Code, without corporate transparency, all the code does is provide a smokescreen for unethical and unsustainable practices to be continued. There are sustainable athletic apparel options, such as Tentree, Boody, Girlfriend Collective, Nube, and Kotn. These companies work directly with production and supply chains to ensure that workers are fairly treated and the environmental impact is minimized.
Designer and luxury brands are not guaranteed to treat workers fairly nor to have adopted sustainable environmental practices. While brands seem to capitalize on the misconception that more expensive merchandise implies the ethical treatment of a company’s employees, designer fashion profits off of forced labor just as fast fashion and streetwear brands do. Burberry, a British luxury brand, for example, made the decision to “close factories in Britain in 2007 and relocate manufacturing to China” (Hoskins) due to an analysis that claimed this move would allow the company to make nearly $2 million more, because it would be easier to avoid paying its workers living wages. Thus, the price of a product does not always determine the practices the company uses to produce their clothing.
Just as signing a Supplier Code is a smokescreen for many streetwear companies, having a “Made in Europe” label works the same way for designer brands. Many high-end brands now produce their clothing in Europe to symbolize the “higher quality” that their clothing maintains, compared to many brands that manufacture their clothing in Asia. However, a Clean Clothes Campaign report says that even in Europe, suppliers may “pay one-third of what would constitute a living wage” (Hoskins). In Croatia, for example, many designer brands’ workers barely have enough money to live, a situation similar to the ongoing one in Asia. The only difference is that workers have a slightly increased chance of being paid minimum wage. As there is often a disparity between a country’s minimum wage and it’s minimum living wage, even this does not ensure the workers fare well. The cost of living is often greater in European countries than in many Asian ones, and in the end, few workers are being paid living wages, no matter the country they work in.
The benefit of purchasing expensive clothing stems from differences between fast fashion and designer brands. Whereas fast fashion produces a high quantity of low-quality clothes, expensive fashion treats clothes as investments. Investing in clothing, rather than seeing it as cheap and disposable, leads to the purchasing (and subsequent manufacturing) of fewer garments, which takes stress off of workers and relieves landfills. This also allows consumers to ultimately spend less money on clothing, while valuing it more.
Because one’s finances are so often a factor in determining what clothing he or she purchases, it is critical to keep in mind that fast fashion has provided a way for individuals who earn a lower-income to buy clothing that is still considered “trendy.” The problem with fast fashion comes in when people who can easily afford and access sustainable and ethical clothing choose to purchase fast fashion instead. Shein and Forever 21 are examples of brands which have become majorly popularized on the internet; influencers make millions of dollars by purchasing and plugging these brands, and because they are influencers, many followers do the same. The issue also lies with the uninformed. While the lack of ethics in the fashion industry is coming to light, many believe that it is only present in fast fashion brands. However, nearly every store, regardless of price, employs child laborers and utilizes sweatshops somewhere along the supply chain to produce their clothing. Some companies do not directly employ workers for less than a country’s minimum wage or hire young children, but since there is little transparency with supplier companies, these brands may unknowingly source from companies that do. The alternative is that these brands produce their clothing from scratch.
Consequently, there is really no guarantee that any clothing is ethically produced unless the store has been vetted to have sustainable and ethical practices. Clothes with the “Fairtrade” or “UNITE” label are the next best thing, as their companies practice transparency and often use environmentally-friendly methods to manufacture clothes. Fast fashion remains the most harmful to workers and the environment and should be avoided if one is able. Thrifting, as it gives clothes a new life, is also a better alternative than fast fashion, though it may lead to the gentrification of fashion in low-income areas. Buying expensive clothing, or simply combating the idea that one should buy more clothing, is an improved alternative, though purchasing sustainably and ethically made clothing is the most advisable option. Since many do not have the financial means to purchase anything but fast fashion, it is also important to keep in mind that one should not shame nor belittle others for their brand choices. Nearly everyone on this planet has worn clothing produced in sweatshops, and since many started at the same point, people all need the opportunity to grow in their choices.
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